NIFL Championship

The Bluefin Sport Championship kicked off again on Friday evening, with Loughgall taking on Portadown at Lakeview Park in the first game of what should be a pulsating season. This was followed by the remaining ten Championship sides playing each other the following day.

I had hoped to have a preview of the Championship before the big kick off last week but time escaped us, so this article will be a mixture of rounding up the weekend’s action and previewing what is to come between now and May.

It seems like we say it every season but this year the Championship could be more interesting from a neutral’s perspective than the Premiership and were better to start than where it all kicked off on Friday night.

Loughgall 1 Portadown 1

Both of these sides go into the 2018/19 season hoping to improve on last season but unlike their opponents on Friday night Loughgall will be hoping to improve on what was a productive season for Dean Smith and his players. Portadown, in contrast, go into the season needing to improve on a season that had mixed fortunes but overall they will have considered a disappointment.

Smith’s side managed to secure a top six finish and after a very good start to the season may be disappointed that they didn’t finish higher up the table than 6th spot, results against the other top half sides costing them in the end, but a run to the semi-finals of the Irish Cup will have eased that disappointment. Smith has strengthened over the summer but players such as Gary Liggett and David McCullough who bring plenty of top-flight experience to the table will be key to Loughgall’s fortunes this season.

Portadown went into last season hoping to bounce back to the Premiership at the first time of asking but a poor start to the season seen them sitting closer to the relegation zone, they did improve and when Niall Currie was replaced by Matthew Tipton as manager they scrapped into the top half and at one point promotion looked possible but they fell just short. Portadown have been dogged by off field issues for the last few years and the question has to be asked can they afford a third season outside of the Premiership?

Now in his first full season at the club Tipton has wasted no time in strengthening by adding players such as Kevin Braniff, Darren Murray and Johnny Flynn to his panel, all of whom were plying their trade in the top flight last season. Tipton still has much to prove as a manager as, despite winning promotion from the Championship with Warrenpoint two seasons ago, he is yet to complete a full season as a manager, perhaps that will change this time around.

Onto the football and on Friday evening it was the visitors who started stronger with Chris Lavery calling Gareth Buchanan into action on a few occasions, but it was former Ports striker Gary Liggett who put Loughgall ahead after 35 minutes when he converted Jordan Gibson’s cross.

The Ports went into the half-time break trailing but equalized after ten minutes of the second period when a Lavery cross was headed home by Adam Salley.

Both sides could have won the game with Gareth Buchannan and David Miskelly having to be alert to prevent goal scoring opportunities but in the end there was nothing to separate the two sides.

Ballinamallard United 3 Limavady United 0

It was the battle of the United’s as Ballinamallard took on Limavady at Ferney Park on Saturday, the Mallards were returning to the Championship after relegation last season ended their six year Premiership spell and Limavady are preparing for their second season at this level.

Perhaps the biggest boost for the home side was managing to tie manager Harry McConkey down to a three year contract. McConkey took over the reins in March when Gavin Dykes left and three wins and four draws from eight games seen the Fermanagh side relegated by goal difference when they appeared to be cut adrift. McConkey is also no stranger to this level of football and I personally have no doubt a strong season is ahead for the Mallards but whether that ends in promotion remains to be seen.

In the Limavady dugout Sean Friars was taking charge of the side for the first time after Paul Owens departed to join Oran Kearney’s Coleraine setup. Friars’ previous managerial experience comes from managing Institute’s reserve team, were he won the league last season, but like his adversary on Saturday he does bring the advantage of knowing the local player pool well and this can often be an advantage at this level of football in Northern Ireland.

The first goal of the game on Saturday came from Jason McCartney, who was part of the Mallards side that first got promoted to the Premiership, in the 38th minute and the lead was doubled just after the hour mark by the returning Ryan Campbell.

Limavady never really threatened former Cliftonville, Glenavon and Newry keeper, John Connolly, but the 41 year old debutant did have to deny Emmett Friars from from pulling a goal back with 5 minutes remaining.

Ballinamallard added a third goal in added time when former academy player Sam Robb set up Josh McIlwaine to score.

Dundela 3 Dergview 2

Newly promoted Dundela suffered defeat last week in the League Cup against Knockbreda but will have been delighted to get their Championship lives off to a winning start against Dergview on Saturday.

Dergview have kept faith with Peter Allen, who led them to 10 wins, two draws and only two defeats as he kept them in the Championship via the promotion/relegation play-off after replacing Richard Clarke as manager, but with the blow of losing one of their main men in the shape of Ryan Campbell I expect a long winter ahead for the Castlederg men.

Dundela as the newly promoted side will also be expected to struggle by many and if they are to stay up they will need star man from last season Jordan Hughes to show all his quality and the striker did just that when he put them into a half-time lead.

Dergview equalized ten minutes into the second half thanks to Paul Smith but another Hughes goal and a further striker from Daniel Burns put them further behind and Dale Maxwell’s goal ten minutes from time came too late for them to make a comeback.

Harland and Wolff Welders 1 Carrick Rangers 0

Another game that featured new faces in the dugout as half the teams in the league appointed new managers over the summer. In this case the Welders had Norman Kelly managing for the first time after Gary Smyth departed for Glentoran and Niall Currie is now in the Carrick hotseat, taking over from David MacAlinden who could not prevent last season’s relegation.

These are another two sides who you would expect to be pushing towards the top end of the table but unfortunately for Carrick I just feel that with only one guaranteed promotion spot in the league there are other teams that are better placed than them at present but with Niall Currie having previously won the league with Loughgall and won promotion with Ards (twice) they certainly have a man who knows his way around the division for future seasons.

The Welders are perhaps in a similar position in that there are teams who on paper look stronger than them but the Welders just always seem to be one of those teams that are there or thereabouts each season and it would be foolish to rule them out.

Saturday’s game was a pretty drab affair with the sole goal of the game coming in the final 20 minutes when Scott McMillan headed home a David Graham corner.

Prior to that both sides had their chances with Denver Gage hitting the post for Carrick and Ryan Deans having a goal disallowed for offside for the Welders.

Knockbreda 1 Larne 1

It was just over a year ago that Larne started their Championship season with a 3-0 loss against Portadown, the start if a torrid run of form that seen them sitting bottom of the table for the opening weeks of the season. Since then it has been all change on and off the field thanks to new financial backer, Kenny Bruce.

Since then Larne have been able to add players such as former Linfield and Shamrock Rovers striker Thomas Stewart, former Premiership title winner Martin Donnelly, former Cliftonville and Waterford striker David McDaid and two times Northern Ireland international and Jeff Hughes to their panel. Of course with all these additions Larne are red hot favorites to win the title, and win it well, this season. Failure to do so could lead to some difficult questions for Tiernan Lynch and his players who will have to adapt to now being the prize catch of the division.

Larne will have wanted to stamp their authority on the Championship season from the off but Knockbreda had other ideas as after falling behind to a Donnelly strike in the 22nd minute, Breda dug in and eventually equalized through a Brendan Bennett goal.

Larne perhaps looked the most likely to grab a winner but Lee Forsythe’s men worked hard to earn what could be a crucial point at both ends of the table come the end of the season.

PSNI 1 Ballyclare Comrades 4

The final game of the day was at Newforge Lane were the PSNI hosted Ballyclare Comrades, who were being managed by Stephen Hughes who returns for a second spell as manager after the resignation of Clifford Adams. The Comrades had a poor end to last season as the first half of the season seen them flying high in the promotion spots but they came crashing down after Christmas and slumped to a disappointing 5th place finish. Unfortunately, with regards promotion this season I get the feeling they may have missed their chance and could even have a fight on to retain their top six status.

Colin Malone’s PSNI side will be relatively happy with last season’s 8th place finish but I can’t see them finishing much higher up the league this season and with their bottom half of the table likely to be more competitive this season they will have to be wary that they don’t have more results like this one.

It was actually the PSNI that took the lead in the 10th minute through manager Malone’s son, Dale, but that lead barely lasted a minute before Eoin Kane had the sides level again, there was little more action in the first half as the sides went in level at the break.

The Comrades took the lead just after the hour mark when Curtis Woods scored and goals from Jason Johnston and Adam Wright in the closing stages gave Hughes the perfect return to Dixon Park.

That’s it in terms of Championship football for this week but we have a full complement of six matches to look forward to on Saturday with the following matches taking place:-

Ballyclare Comrades v Loughgall

Carrick Rangers v Dundela

Dergview v Harland and Wolff Welders

Larne v Ballinamallard United

Limavady United v Knockbreda

Portadown v PSNI

Last week I covered the first round of the BetMcLean League Cup and the draw for the second round took place last week with the twelve Premiership sides from last season plus the top four Championship sides entering at this stage. The following ties will take place on Tuesday the 28th August:-

Annagh United v Warrenpoint Town

Ards v Newington Youth Club

Ballinamallard United v Lurgan Celtic

Ballymena United v Dollingstown

Carrick Rangers v Sport and Leisure Swifts

Cliftonville v Lisburn Distillery

Coleraine v Ballyclare Comrades

Dungannon Swifts v Limavady United

Glenavon v Dergview

Harland and Wolff Welders v Portstewart

Institute v Loughgall

Larne v Glentoran

Linfield v Moyola Park

Newry City v Knockbreda

PSNI v Crusaders

Tobermore United v Portadown

I hope to be back later in the week to preview the Bluefin Sport Premier Intermediate League (PIL), which kicks off on Saturday.